Coeur d'Alene, Idaho labor confrontation of 1899

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The Coeur d'Alene, Idaho labor confrontation of 1899 was the second of two major labor-management confrontations in the Coeur d'Alene mining district of northern Idaho in the 1890s. Like the first incident, the Coeur d'Alene, Idaho labor strike of 1892, the 1899 confrontation was an attempt by union miners, led by the Western Federation of Miners to unionize non-union mines, and have them pay the higher union wage scale. As with the 1892 strike, the 1899 incident culminated in a dynamite attack that destroyed a non-union mining facility, followed by military occupation of the district.

The confrontation of 1899 resulted from the miners' frustrations with mine operators that paid lower wages, hired Pinkerton or Thiel operatives to infiltrate the union; and routinely fired any miner who held a union card.


Angered by wage cuts, Coeur d'Alene area miners conducted a strike in 1892. The strike erupted in violence when union miners discovered they had been infiltrated by a Pinkerton agent who had routinely provided union information to the mine owners. After several deaths, the U.S. army occupied the area and forced an end to the strike. The response to that violence, disastrous for the local miners' union, became the primary motivation for the formation of the Western Federation of Miners (WFM) the following year.

In the period from 1899 to 1901,

...Federal troops demonstrated the power of the back east [mine] owners, compelling some miners to work at gunpoint, others to build their own bull-pens, inventing the rustling card system so no man could hunt a job without the sheriff's approval, and using Governor Steunenberg, whom the miners had helped elect as a Populist, to oust the elected local authorities who might have some sympathy for the strikers.[1]

The Bunker Hill Mining Company at Wardner, Idaho, was profitable, having paid more than $600,000 in dividends.[2] Miners working in the Bunker Hill and Sullivan mines were receiving fifty cents to a dollar less per day than other miners,[3] which at that time represented a significant percentage of the paycheck. The properties were the only mines in the district that were not unionized, and the Bunker Hill company had employed Pinkerton labor spies to identify union members.

In April 1899, as the union was launching an organizing drive of the few locations not yet unionized, superintendent Albert Burch declared that the company would rather "shut down and remain closed twenty years" than to recognize the union. He then fired seventeen workers that he believed to be union members and demanded that all other union men collect their back pay and quit.[2]

Dynamite Express[edit]

Ruins of the Bunker Hill ore mill in Wardner, Idaho, after being dynamited by union miners in 1899

On April 29, 250 union members in their "digging clothes" seized a train in Burke from Levi "Al" Hutton, the engineer later claimed at gun point.[4] At each stop through Burke-Canyon, more miners climbed aboard. In Mace, a hundred men climbed aboard. At Frisco, the train stopped to load eighty wooden boxes, each containing fifty pounds of dynamite. At Gem, 150 to 200 more miners climbed onto three freight cars which had been added to the train. In Wallace, 200 miners were waiting, having walked seven miles from Mullan. Nearly a thousand men[5] rode the train to Wardner, the site of a $250,000 mill of the Bunker Hill mine. After carrying three thousand pounds of dynamite into the mill, they set their charges and scattered. Two men were killed,[6] one of them a non-union miner, the other a union man accidentally shot by other miners. Their mission accomplished, the miners once again boarded the "Dynamite Express" and left the scene.[7]

From Kellog to Wallace, ranchers and laboring people lined the tracks and, according to one eyewitness, "cheered the [union] men lustily as they passed."[8]


The temporary wooden prison built in Wardner, Idaho, popularly called "the bullpen."
Prisoners drill with wooden rifles in the "bullpen," Wardner, Idaho, 1899.

At the Idaho governor's request, President William McKinley sent black soldiers from Brownsville, Texas and other areas, veterans of the Spanish–American War, to round up 1,000 men and put them into bullpens. The arrests were indiscriminate; Governor Steunenberg's representative, state auditor Bartlett Sinclair believed that all the people of Canyon Creek had a "criminal history," and "the entire community, or the male portion of it, ought to be arrested." The soldiers searched every house, breaking down the door if no one answered.[9]

As Sinclair had ordered, they arrested every male: miners, bartenders, a doctor, a preacher, even the postmaster and school superintendent. … Cooks and waiters [were] arrested in kitchens, diners at their supper tables. … For desperate criminals, the men of Burke went quietly, the only gunshot was aimed at a "vicious watch dog."[9]

One thousand men were herded into an old barn, a two-story frame structure 120 feet long by 40 feet wide and filled with hay. It was "still very cold in those altitudes" and the men, having been arrested with no opportunity to bring along blankets, "suffered some from the weather." The overflow were herded into boxcars. The prisoners were then forced to build a pine board prison for themselves, and it was surrounded by a six-foot barbed wire fence patrolled by armed soldiers. Conditions remained primitive, and three prisoners died.[10]

The U.S. Army followed escaping miners into Montana and arrested them, returning them to Idaho, and failed to comply with jurisdictional or extradition laws. One man arrested and transported was a Montana citizen who had no connection to the Wardner events.[11]

Two of the three county commissioners had been caught in the roundup, as had the local sheriff. These, too, were held prisoner. Later, a district court removed all of the county commissioners and the sheriff from office, charging that they'd neglected their official duties.[12]


Arrangements with replacement officials installed by Sinclair demonstrated "a pattern."

The new regime's principal [sic] patronage—the fat contract for supplying food and drink to the bullpen's prisoners—had gone to Tony Tubbs, the former manager of Bunker Hill's boardinghouse, destroyed on April 29. Likewise, most of the thirty men Sinclair hired as special "state deputies" were either employees and former employees of the Bunker Hill Company or contractors for it. Among the most prominent was a saloonkeeper named W.C. "Convict" Murphy, who'd served time for horse stealing and cattle rustling. When Convict Murphy broke down people's doors, he was sometimes asked for a search warrant or other authority, at which he would draw a pair of six-shooters and say, "These are my warrants."[13]

Emma F. Langdon, a union sympathizer, charged in a 1908 book that Idaho Governor Frank Steunenberg, who had been "considered a poor man," deposited $35,000 into his bank account within a week after troops arrived in the Coeur d'Alene district, implying that there may have been a bribe from the mine operators.[14] Subsequent research appears to have uncovered the apparent source of this assertion. J. Anthony Lukas recorded in his book Big Trouble,

In 1899, when the state needed money for the Coeur d'Alene prosecutions, the Mine Owners' Association had come up with $32,000—about a third of it from Bunker Hill and Sullivan—handing $25,000 over to Governor Steunenberg for use at his discretion in the prosecution. Some of this money went to pay [attorneys].[15]

In his autobiography, WFM Secretary-Treasurer Bill Haywood described Idaho miners held for "months of imprisonment in the 'bull-pen'—a structure unfit to house cattle—enclosed in a high barbed-wire fence."[16] Peter Carlson wrote in his book Roughneck,

Haywood traveled to the town of Mullan, where he met a man who had escaped from the 'bullpen'. The makeshift prison was an old grain warehouse that reeked of excrement and crawled with vermin.[17]

Some of the miners, never having been charged with any crime, were eventually allowed to go free, while others were prosecuted. Thirty-four-year-old Paul Corcoran, the father of three and "a highly respected member of the Burke community," was financial secretary of the Burke Miners Union. The state decided to make an example of him. No one could say he'd even been in the vicinity of the crime, but some had seen him riding on the roof of a boxcar of the Dynamite Express. The prosecution, whose salaries were paid by a $32,000 grant from the mine owners, argued that Corcoran should take the blame for planning the attack on the Bunker Hill mill. Corcoran was sentenced to seventeen years at hard labor. Eight more miners accused of leading the attack were scheduled for trial on charges of murder and/or arson, but bribed an army sergeant to allow them to escape. Hundreds more remained in the makeshift prison without charges.[18]

Meanwhile, Sinclair developed a permit system which would prevent mines from hiring any miner who belonged to a union. The plan was designed to destroy the unions in the Coeur d'Alene district. General Henry C. Merriam of the U.S. Army endorsed the permit system verbally and in writing, resulting in considerable consternation at the McKinley White House.[19]

Surveying the situation, with hundreds of union miners locked up by the militia for a year or more—some still never having been charged with a crime — Bill Haywood came to one conclusion. He believed that the companies and their supporters in government—intent upon forcing wage cuts and employers' freedom to fire union miners—were conducting class warfare against the working class.[20]

The editor of one local newspaper, Wilbur H. Stewart of the Mullan Mirror, dared to criticize the bullpen and its keepers. Sinclair appeared at his door alongside a major and several soldiers with unsheathed bayonets. Sinclair declared,

I find that you have been publishing a seditious newspaper, inciting riot and insurrection, and we have concluded that publication of your paper must cease.[21]

Stewart was taken to the bullpen, where he was assigned to garbage and latrine duty. However, the paper did not stop publication; Stewart's young wife, Maggie, continued to publish the weekly.[22] Sinclair impounded her type, and she contracted with another sympathetic publisher to continue the news. Eventually Stewart was released under instructions to end the criticism. He sold the newspaper instead.[21]

Many populist elected officials in Shoshone County were rounded up for their support of the miners. The town sheriff of Mullan, Idaho was arrested and sent to the bullpen.[23]

May Arkwright Hutton, whose husband was the engineer on the dynamite express, wrote a book, The coeur d' alenes: or, A Tale of the Modern Inquisition in Idaho, about the treatment of the miners, and her husband, at the hands of the mine owners and the sheriff.

Both Huttons and Ed Boyce, head of the Western Federation of Miners, had invested in the Hercules silver mine before the 1899 war. After they had become wealthy mine owners, May Hutton sought to buy back all copies of her book. Ed Boyce quit the miners union to manage a hotel in Portland.[24]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The IWW: Its First Seventy Years, Fred W. Thompson and Patrick Murfin, 1976, page 10 ppbk.
  2. ^ a b J. Anthony Lukas, Big Trouble, 1997, page 111.
  3. ^ Labor's Greatest Conflicts, Emma F. Langdon, 1908, page 16.
  4. ^ schwantes, carlos (1996). ""The Pacific Northwest: An Interpretive history"". University of Nebraska Press. p.320
  5. ^ J. Anthony Lukas, Big Trouble, 1997, page 112.
  6. ^ Roughneck—The Life and Times of Big Bill Haywood, Peter Carlson, 1983, pages 53-54.
  7. ^ J. Anthony Lukas, Big Trouble, 1997, pages 113-114.
  8. ^ J. Anthony Lukas, Big Trouble, 1997, page 114.
  9. ^ a b J. Anthony Lukas, Big Trouble, 1997, page 141.
  10. ^ Lukas, page 142.
  11. ^ Lukas, page 144.
  12. ^ Lukas, pages 142–143.
  13. ^ Lukas, page 143.
  14. ^ Labor's Greatest Conflicts, Emma F. Langdon, 1908, page 17.
  15. ^ Lukas, page 351.
  16. ^ The Autobiography of Big Bill Haywood, William D. Haywood, 1929, page 81.
  17. ^ Roughneck: The Life and Times of Big Bill Haywood, Peter Carlson, 1983, page 54.
  18. ^ Lukas, pages 149–150.
  19. ^ Lukas, pages 146–148.
  20. ^ Carlson, page 55.
  21. ^ a b Lukas, page 147.
  22. ^ Compare to Emma F. Langdon in Cripple Creek.
  23. ^ History of Selected Mines in the Pine Creek Area, Shoshone County, Idaho by Victoria E Mitchell, Idaho Geological Survey
  24. ^ schwantes, carlos (1996). The Pacific Northwest: An Interpretive History. University of Nebraska Press.

Further reading[edit]

  • New Politics, vol. 7, no. 1 (new series), whole no. 25, Summer 1998 by Steve Early [1]
  • Big Trouble: A Murder in a Small Western Town Sets Off a Struggle for the Soul of America by J. Anthony Lukas